Adventures In Audio

Using noise as a creative effect with the Waves CLA-1176, Soundtoys Decapitator, and basic DAW EQ


Clean digital recordings are often bland, uninteresting and sterile. But they can be given life and realism using analog noise. Some plug-ins feature analog noise, but it is usually limited to just on or off. Here we look at how analog noise can be replicated in the DAW, and how it can be controlled and blended any way you want.

Automated transcript

learn audio online with audio master class audio master class comm noise as a creative effect some of the audio in this video is very quiet you'll need a very quiet listening environment to monitor successfully on loudspeakers studio quality headphones are recommended here's a clean recording of bass guitar this recording is so clean it's likely that the source truck was a virtual instrument however it's also possible that a real bass guitar was recorded directly into the audio interface or through a DI box it's worth considering a perspective from the history of recording dating back to the 1960s in the 1960s and early 1970s recordings were made of instruments that were played by human beings not computers or sequences recordings were made through a mixing console to analog multitrack tape the recordings were captured mostly by microphones or an electric instrument such as a Fender Rhodes piano could be recorded through a DI box connected to a microphone input of the mixing console electric guitar and bass guitar would be recorded each through an amplifier and loudspeaker cabinet using a microphone although the bass guitar could sometimes be D ID also it was the practice that basic trucks would be recorded with the band all playing together often with the singer providing a guide vocal that would be overdubbed later when recording basic tracks engineers were very concerned with separation separation meant having a low level of leakage spill or bleed all the same meaning from what instruments microphone to another so acoustic screens would be positioned so that each microphone picked up as little spill as possible from the other instruments separation would never be perfect except for the clothes marks on the drums drums are so loud that they will almost completely overpower the other instruments so because of spill a recording could never be perfectly clean in addition there will be noise caused by the instrument amplifiers by low-level signals such as the Fender Rhodes piano requiring a lot of preamp gain in the mixing console to a small degree and massively in the analog multitrack tape recorder so in those times the engineers problem was in getting a recording that was clean enough fast-forward to today and there's no problem making a recording that's a hundred percent clean like the bass guitar recording earlier but the problem now is that when a recording is too clean and when multiple tracks of 100% clean recordings are mixed together then the result can be uninteresting and lacking in texture so when digital audio workstation recording became the norm around the mm the problem was that recordings were too clean in the following years harmonic generation amp emulation tape emulation and similar plugins became available and are now widely available these plugins allow us to add warmth to recordings that would otherwise be cold and sterile but comparatively little attention has been given to spill and noise spill is a different topic that will not be covered here noise however is very relevant to warmth and to the believability of virtual instruments and plug-in emulations of analog hardware white noise and pink noise to commonly referenced types of noise are white noise and pink noise white noise is a completely random variation in the motion of air molecules or the magnetic orientation of particles in an analog tape or the motion of electrons in a circuit white noise has equal amplitude at every frequency as a point of interest if not direct relevance white noise as a source of randomness finds uses in science computing and even lotteries white noise looks and sounds like this pink noise is similar but instead of being equal at every frequency it has equal energy in equal logarithmic bandwidth intervals so in octave bands for instance each band is as loud as every other band pink noise sounds a little less bright than white noise pink noise looks and sounds like this we could try adding white or pink noise at a suitable level to the bass guitar to see if it adds any sense of analog warmth

that was interesting but clearly there's further to go with this why do plugins emulate vintage hardware there are several possible answers to this question it sounds good it's simple to operate it makes us feel like we're in a pro studio it offers the certainty that we're using the same equipment as the pros even though in an emulation great records of the past have been made with this equipment it's tried and tested using it avoids uncertainty and risk it has withstood the test of time you can take your pick of any or all of the above however let's go with it sounds good as an example we'll consider the Universal Audio 1176 compressor pictured here in its reissued version you can see other versions including the classic blue stripe with a simple web search we can take the popularity of the 1176 over time as evidence that it sounds good it would be ripe for emulation by any competent plug-in developer who can get access to an example of the hardware unit so what aspects of the original hardware should the plug-in developer emulate everything why not it would seem a little crazy not to emulate every aspect of an original piece of hardware after all the developer doesn't know for sure why people like it leaving out one or any of its characteristics would risk the plug-in being unsuccessful in the market and as we all know analog hardware can be noisy so just to be sure why not emulate the noise but being digitally orientated these days clearly there should be an option to turn the noise off I'm not aware of any plug-in emulation that features noise that can't be switched off but I'm open to reports and I'll update if I hear anything further so let's experiment with an emulation of the universal audio 1176 which in this instance is the waves CLA 76 if you compare the plugin with the hardware unit you'll notice that there are extra buttons one to switch between the Blooey and Blacky versions of the hardware there's another to switch in all of the ratio buttons which can be done for a special effect on the original and buttons to select which version of analogue noise you would prefer or non fifty Hertz and sixty Hertz refer to the electric mains frequencies in Europe and North America respectively I'm not going to use it for compression since here we're only interested in the noise so here's what it sounds like with neutral settings and the noise switched off and now with the noise switched on as you'll hear the difference is extremely subtle but it is there here's the noise by itself you may need to turn up your monitor level to hear it but don't forget to turn it down after

now that you've tuned in your ears here's an example where the noise is switched in and out we can test this in another way if the track is duplicated and the noise switched out on the duplicate and then the duplicate is put through an inverting plug-in then the bass guitar should cancel out leaving only the noise to be clear in this example you'll hear only the noise

as you can hear the noise is pretty much the same either way this shows us that in this plugin the analog button only adds noise and does nothing else to the signal what if you can't hear the noise I can understand anyone who says that the noise is definitely there but when the instrument is playing it's hard to hear but suppose that you really like this plugin and you use it on several tracks let's say 24 tracks you've left the analog button switched to either 50 Hertz or 60 Hertz on all of the instances what does it sound like now here's a test all of the tracks are muted and unmuted a couple of times before the bass starts so that you can clearly hear the level of the noise the noise is now clearly audible this is a warning that unless you deliberately want to add noise then you need to be careful that the noise is switched off on all of the instances where you don't need it bear in mind that the noise will get subjectively worse if you use a high-frequency boost after compression going back to just one track the noise is very subtle and you might want to experiment with having more of it but the plug-in doesn't offer any way to control the noise the answer is to create another track without any audio just the plug-in now you can switch the noise off on the instrument track and control the noise fully using the dedicated noise track here we have two tracks this is the bass guitar truck and this is the plug-in for the bass guitar and as we can see here the analog noise is switched off so there's no noise on that track on this Orcs truck here we have the same plug-in with the same settings and on this one the noise is set to 50 Hertz so we can control the noise separately to the bass guitar in fact you can hear the noise now it might be a little quiet in the background so let's make it louder I can do that by adding a trim plug-in so with the trim plug-in I can make the noise 12 decibels louder that should be clearly audible but I'll make it even louder by doubling the trim plug-in I can copy it with the same settings so the noise is now very clearly audible so I'll take it down in level and I'll mix it in with the bass guitar I think that's roundabout the right level and you can hear the noise in the background now so we've got a level of minus eleven point five that would be different depending on what you're working with so let's try it a little too quiet and then a little too loud and then once again just right so there we have a level of noise that's adding a certain amount of realism to this otherwise very clean recording the sound texture of the noise now that we can hear the noise clearly we can hear its components which appear to be a 50 Hertz buzz and whitish noise so it seems like an interesting experiment to try and recreate it so I'll add two more tracks which can be audio tracks or Orcs tracks as all of the sound will come from plug-in signal generators the CL a76 noise track will be muted for now firstly the 50 Hertz home

then white noise at a level that is reasonably in proportion subjectively with the 50 Hertz hum

and mixing them together we get

does it sound like the noise from the CLA 76 I can experiment with the levels and compare for this example the noise level of the CLA 76 has been boosted by a further 24 decibels so that it is very clearly audible

although not too bad the hum doesn't sound like the hump from the CLA 76 even when it's around the same level it becomes inaudible on small speakers while the CLA 76 is hum remains clear the answer to this is that the hum from the CLA 76 contains harmonics and becomes a buzz the harmonics of 50 Hertz are 100 Hertz 150 Hertz 200 Hertz 250 Hertz etc all the whole number multiples I could add more signal generator tracks but an easier way to add harmonics is to use a harmonic enhancement plug-in such as the soundToys Decapitator which works well and is easy to use equalization should also help the next example shows experimentation with the Decapitator and EQ leading to a reasonable facsimile of the noise from the CLA 76 perhaps waves used a similar method what I'm going to do here is try and make the noise from the 50 Hertz tone and the white noise sound like the noise from the CLA 76 this is the original bass guitar track that I'm not going to use now so let's have a listen to the CLA 76 see what that sounds like and then we'll compare it with the 50 Hertz and white noise

what we can hear is that the 50 Hertz component is at a good level but our small loudspeakers it probably won't be audible and what we're hearing is a lot of harmonics from the CLA 76

so what I'm going to do is use a harmonic enhancement plug-in to add harmonics to the 50 Hertz tone so the plug-in is going to be the soundToys Decapitator so let's just listen to the 50 Hertz tone by itself so I'll increase the drive

I'm definitely getting something there but let's try these style options I like this one n and this one P let's compare them with the CLA 76 you

it seems to me that it has too much low frequency energy and it isn't bright enough in the high frequency range so I'm going to add an EQ

this looks quite complicated but what we have here is a high-pass filter we have a low-pass filter low frequency section low mid frequency mid frequency high mid frequency and high frequency so it's not too difficult even if you don't use Pro Tools so let's have a go

I think we've got something which is already quite similar but I'm going to try boosting the high mid frequency and see what we can get from that


okay I think that's quite good so now we need to look at the white noise and see whether that needs any attention so let's just come over to this one here

the white noise seems just a little bit too bright so once again I'll put in the EQ

and I'm going to use the low-pass filter

it's too much

still a little bit too much I think we'll try just a little bit more level

and I'm going to take away some of the low frequencies as well

so let's listen to it both together

okay so it's not exact but I think it's quite close let's listen and compare again

in summary noise can be useful to add an interesting texture to another wise clean and sterile recording some plugins emulate the noise of hardware equipment but it is not controllable analog noise can be emulated using a sine wave at 50 or 60 Hertz with harmonic generation and EQ together with white noise further processing can be applied if desired I'm David Miller cost director of audio masterclass thank you for listening


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David Mellor

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

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